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For some reason, through all the times I’ve read the Sermon on the Mount, the blaring contradiction of the hidden vs. visible righteous life never occurred to me until now.

To begin, Jesus starts off his Sermon the Mount with a call to action:

“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house.In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven

But, for some reason, Jesus contradicts his call to action with warnings to hide our righteousness. This has completely escaped my notice until now:

Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.

And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others

And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

These contradictory commands confuse the reader and the sincere disciple. While he calls us to do good deeds before men, he also exhorts us to hide our righteousness before men? Naturally it follows that God will not be glorified if we do not somehow perform deeds in the open? How will the sinner know God if He is hid under the bowl then?

Bonhoeffer explains the seeming contradiction like this:

“How is this paradox to be resolved? The first question to ask is: From whom are we to hide the visibility of our discipleship? Certainly not from other men, for we are told to let them see our light. No. We are to hide it from ourselves. Our task is simply to keep following, looking only to our Leader who goes on before, taking no notice of ourselves or of what we are doing. We must be unaware of our own righteousness, and see it only in so far as we look unto Jesus; then it will seem not extraordinary, but quite ordinary and natural (Cost of Discipleship p. 158).


“All that the follower of Jesus has to do is to make sure that his obedience, following and love are entirely spontaneous and unpremeditated.”(Cost of Discipleship p. 159).

I understand, and I don’t understand. How else are we to know if we are good or righteous before God without self-reflection? Practically speaking, how does one actually live so spontaneously (and irresponsibly) when Jesus does not literally tell us what to do in our day-to-day lives? Are we not left on our own then to make decisions that require self-reflection? When I do action X, don’t I need to first count, measure, and do some sort of opportunity cost analysis in order to move?


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